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Israel Strikes Balancing Act With Europe

PARIS — When American Jews hear the word “France” lately, they think of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and even anti-Americanism. They undoubtedly believe Israeli politicians see eye to eye with them on this when they hear Israeli officials rail against French President Jacques Chirac.

But the view from Jerusalem is decidedly different — at least at the Foreign Ministry.

Despite their public condemnations of rising French antisemitism, calls for French Jews to immigrate to Israel and scorn for France’s positions on Middle Eastern affairs, Israeli diplomats have treaded more carefully when dealing with Paris.

Some months ago, Israel even made a strategic decision in this regard.

“We decided that we would distinguish between France’s positions on the Middle East and our bilateral relationship,” said Nissim Zvili, the Israeli ambassador to France. “There is a real willingness on both sides to upgrade the bilateral relationship… Sometimes, we will agree, sometimes we won’t.”

The decision was made during a meeting between then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin. Peres’s successors Benjamin Netanyahu and now Silvan Shalom have endorsed the decision, Zvili said.

Zvili, a former secretary-general of the Labor Party, said that while a large part of his job is to try to coax France into a more pro-Israeli position on the Middle East conflict, he understands that France has its own interests and that the divergences shouldn’t harm bilateral relations.

“This is a basic mistake we have been making, and we are trying to correct this and take a totally different road,” he said. “For years, Israel has somehow neglected its relations with Europe, and I am not sure it was a good decision to base everything with the United States.”

Besides scientific and cultural exchanges, trade is a key dimension. Israel has an annual trade with France of nearly $2 billion, which represents about 2% of its foreign trade.

More generally, the European Union is Israel’s main trading partner, which explains why Jerusalem treads more carefully than its American supporters when it comes to Europe, especially now given Israel’s dire economic straits.

Israeli officials have recently hinted that Jerusalem was considering applying for E.U. membership several years down the road.

A European official in charge of relations with Israel noted that there is “much more than meets the eye” in the Israel-E.U. interaction.

“We have a strong and vital relationship, except on the peace process,” he said, citing scientific, cultural and economic links. “The business community in Israel is very aware of this and even Netanyahu, when he was prime minister, made an effort to improve relations.”

For instance, Israel and the E.U. signed an association agreement allowing Israeli products to enter the E.U. with preferential taxes. Since the agreement went into force in July 2000, bilateral trade has increased 30% each year.

The deal is part of the so-called Barcelona Process, which envisions the creation of a free trade zone around the Mediterranean by 2010 through a series of negotiated agreements.

The E.U., however, has been eager to carve a larger role for itself in the Middle East peace process. But because Jerusalem thinks Europe — with the possible exception of Germany — tilts toward the Palestinians, it is still at a disadvantage, especially in times of tension.

“Israel has historical ill feelings toward Europe,” the European officials said. “We just have to deal with it and hope this can improve.”

When dealing with Europe, Israel is thus striking a delicate balancing act. While Israel is eager to see American Jewish organizations blast the E.U. for its policies in the Middle East, and was happy to see them castigate Belgium when a lawsuit against Prime Minister Sharon was filed there, it sees boycotts such as the one promoted against France by the American Jewish Congress as unhelpful.

When the president of the AJCongress, Jack Rosen, made trips to France to convey his views, Israeli officials saw this as overreaching and encroaching on Israeli diplomatic territory, and rebutted his efforts.

Still, the separation advocated by Zvili is not clear-cut. Last year an Israeli minister said that France was the worst country in the world in terms of antisemitism, prompting a furious reaction from Paris, as did Jerusalem’s decision to grant French Jewish immigrants subsidies reserved for Jews from Argentina and the former Soviet Union.

Zvili was uncomfortable with the issue, saying he was not sure the policy was still in place and stressing that immigration was first and foremost a personal decision. He contended that branding France an antisemitic and anti-Israel country was a huge mistake “first because it is not true,” but also from a political standpoint.

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